I love working from home, far away from chilly air-conditioning vents and noisy colleagues. I have few pointless meetings, zero interruptions and no need for awkward watercooler chitchat. My output should be high – after all, studies have shown that being a remote worker and a mother could both increase my productivity.
Unfortunately, I now have new, tiny colleagues at home – and they are needier than any I have encountered before. Like many children round the world, my kids Anais, 7, and Theo, 4, have been sent home from school to reduce the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus. But classes aren’t cancelled; they now have their own video conference calls with teachers, demand constant printouts of daily work and need to be motivated in the style of an all-hands meeting. My husband – also now at home – and I have suddenly taken on new roles as lunch caterers, office admins, therapists and assistants to our mini-executives, all on top of our regular jobs. Every day feels like a Monday.
Of course, I’m not alone in the new normal of balancing ever-present kids with work; parents in several nations are tackling this issue, with sometimes hilarious results. Many are trying to establish new rules to help with the transition and figure out how to remain productive in a comprehensively changed ‘office’.
Good planning, structure, creativity and flexibility can help you create an environment where everyone can fulfil their obligations
This, experts suggest, may come down to combination of measures. Good planning, structure, creativity and flexibility can all help you create an environment in which everyone can fulfil their obligations – while maintaining family harmony.
Communicate a family plan
With a house full of kids and working parents, it’s important to be realistic about your working situation and the willpower it will take to succeed – and that means taking time to explain what’s happening.
“Be overly communicative and set boundaries,” says Tonya Dalton, a productivity consultant in Ashville, North Carolina in the US. Being transparent about every family member’s schedule can make it easier for children to understand when you’re off limits, she explains. “It’s okay if you want to talk to your kids to take your mind off work, but it needs to be siloed to work breaks.”
Want to share your experiences or tips working from home? Join the conversation on our LinkedIn page.
Scheduling is vital, but when it comes to setting out your timetable, don’t try to mimic your day at the office; it’s important to acknowledge that the situation has changed. Instead, create a daily plan for the entire family that includes work and school schedules, and make it easily visible to everyone, says Holland Haiis, a New York-based professional speaker focusing on professional development and human connection. “It lets everyone know what they can expect next in this new environment where everything feels a little different.”
For Ingrid Jansen, committing her husband and two children to the same weekday routine is making it easier for the entire family to adjust. “We recently agreed on a daily schedule that involves having breakfast, lunch and dinner at the same time daily, adding in two exercise breaks with walking and cycling… and we are adding in time for chores,” says Jansen, the founder of an online de-cluttering business who is based in London. (Jansen spoke to the BBC before new restrictions came in limiting people to one external exercise period per day.)
For parents with younger children, consider an early morning work shift before ‘school hours’ begin, suggests Roberta Andrade, who runs a business organising people’s homes in São Paolo, Brazil. She now lets her children sleep in until 0900 to allow time for her own work rather than rushing them off to eat breakfast. With a couple of hours of work already under her belt, it makes it easy to take a break mid-morning to help the children with their schoolwork. “I am now in the process of redesigning our habits and being available to them in the mornings,” says Andrade.
Swap in and out with your spouse
With schools and offices closed, parents may well find that their task list has gone up, not down. Some will be adapting to working from home for the first time, with the stresses and tech woes that might bring. Many will be navigating their first attempt at home-schooling as well as monitoring headlines for the latest developments, worrying about relatives and figuring out the best way to keep the kitchen cupboards stocked.
Yet too much multitasking - like trying to work and oversee homework at the same time - can reduce a person’s ability to focus on a specific task. Creating windows for productivity is one option; if both parents are working, divide up the day into blocks that give one parent space away from the children at a time.
Allocating each person time to concentrate solely on work ensures everyone gets key tasks done without resentment – Claudia Gladish
Allocating each person time to concentrate solely on work ensures everyone gets key tasks done without resentment, says Claudia Gladish, a skincare line founder in Kentfield, California who is married with two young children. She and her partner have come up with a schedule swapping in and out of childcare duties in a way that allows each longer gaps of dedicated work time. “It's the only way for us to not have one person fall behind more than the other,” she explains.
That’s more of a risk for women than men, data from a German study from the Hans Böckler Foundation shows. Despite parenting and household responsibilities becoming more equally shared between the genders in recent decades, women still take on the bulk of managing children’s schedules and activities, even if both spouses work, and also perform more of the cognitive labour associated with keeping a household running (often known as the mental load).
The study showed that when men and women in full-time work have flexible schedules, like working from home, only women expect to use the flexibility to meet additional demands at home, while men may “use it as high-performance strategy, rather than as a mean to combine different life domains”. A discussion between spouses about how tasks and time are shared during the coronavirus lockdown may well be a good investment.
Farrah Eaton, former high school administrator, assists her children with home-schooling in New York. (Credit: Getty Images)
And despite exhortations on social media to use this time at home to be more creative or finish that special project, set realistic goals for both the home and work parts of your life, and don’t be afraid to let things that matter less slide.
If you need to be available for your children throughout the day, focus on your most important tasks and don’t overload your own schedule, says Ellen Faye, a productivity coach from Naples, Florida in the US. “Identify your priorities with your work and focus on getting the essentials taken care of – all the unimportant stuff will be there for you to address later.” Save non-linear work such as answering emails for times when you’re watching your children and can be more easily distracted, adds Haiis.
Enjoy your kids
Figuring out how to make the best of the situation, rather than dwelling on its challenges, might also make you more productive. Multiple studies show the positive link between happiness and productivity.
As Germany's schools and daycare centres close amid the Covid-19 outbreak, children are keeping up with their studies from home. (Credit: Getty Images)
Under lockdown that could mean sneaking in an online yoga class with your child, finding time to play catch or giving children a couple of extra hugs throughout the day. “Working adults with children have been gifted a rare opportunity to take a break and experience recess and playtime with their kids – and it too will pass,” says Haiis.
Avoid judging yourself – or others – on what you can get done each day. People at all levels of a company are adjusting to a new normal, including your boss. And while Sir Isaac Newton’s quarantine during the plague was undoubtedly more productive than yours, don’t give up just because you haven’t discovered your own version of the theory of gravity.
Just tucking your cranky colleagues into bed each night is an accomplishment. And it should feel like it.